Here’s the secret to getting the best AncestryDNA test results
It's all in the family (tree)
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The urge to delve deep into your family’s history can come suddenly. For me, it was during an episode of “Finding Your Roots” on PBS. It took watching Andy Samberg’s mother reconnect with her long-lost family to make me realize I needed to find out more about mine. Were my ancestors Irish like my mother insisted? Was I really related to Kiefer Sutherland like my sister swore?
So I went almost immediately to AncestryDNA and tried to build a family tree. I quickly learned: 1.) it’s complicated, and 2.) it can get expensive if you don’t know where to look. But several days later, I had a complete history of my entire family, discovered a few secret relatives, and decided I also needed to send in an AncestryDNA kit to reveal even more about my family’s past.
And once I received my AncestryDNA test results I realized—you can access so much more about your heritage if you build a family tree. You can only view its ThruLines feature—which tells you how you’re related to other users—if you have a fleshed out family tree, so building one allows you to unlock features that would otherwise remain blank.
So how do you make a family tree on Ancestry? And what specifically can you access? Here’s what you need to know.
What can you learn with a family tree in Ancestry?
An Ancestry family tree is similar to the one you likely had to make during grade school, but it’s all online and gives you access to billions of records literally within seconds. So in addition to building blocks for every member of your family tree, you can connect the records to individual people in your tree. You have the option to add photographs, accept or decline records, receive hints from the platform, and even build based off of other people’s family trees. If you want to purely learn about your ethnicity, take an AncestryDNA test. But if you want to learn what profession your Irish ancestors had, build a family tree.
With the family tree, you can read through birth records, death certificates, property files, census documents, military records, and even old yearbooks. The fact that you can pull up your grandfather’s WWII enlistment papers, or your great-great-great grandmother’s name on a census is incredibly rewarding.
And yes—you can learn family secrets you never knew you didn’t want to know. Personally, I learned that my great grandparents were first cousins, and that one of my relatives had two secret children, one of whom is active on Ancestry. Devastatingly, I discovered my family is not related to presidents Rutherford B. Hayes or John Tyler (two more urban-family-legends), nor are we cousins with Kiefer Sutherland.
When senior staff writer Shayna Murphy built her family tree on Ancestry, she discovered that her 10th great grandparents were none other than Thomas and Ann Carr Putnam. If you’re familiar with the Salem Witch Trials, you’ve likely heard of the Putnam family.
That’s right, Shayna—who loves “Hocus Pocus,” astrology, crystals, and her Buffy Funko—is a direct descendent of the Putnams, who accused more than 100 people of witchcraft and actively participated in the Salem Witch Trials in the 1600s. Despite the fact that the Putnams were among the most infamous families in New England in the seventeenth century, Shayna had no idea she was related to them until she used Ancestry’s service.
“My relationship to the Putnams is on my mother’s side and it explains a lot about her family,” Shayna said. “It was cool to discover something so significant about my ancestors, because I think everyone sort of hopes they find something important when they do family genealogy, right? In my case, I discovered my ancestors were these huge jerks who probably helped orchestrate the Salem Witch Trials. It was weird and cool and awful all at the same time—and I promptly watched ‘The Crucible’ again because of it.”
How do you make a family tree in Ancestry?
Making a family tree on Ancestry is free—but accessing all the records on the site will cost you. You’ll need to sign up for an account on Ancestry—you can sign up for 14-day free trial and access the billions of records for free for two weeks, or you can sign up for an account and bypass the free trial, opting instead to just comb through Ancestry’s Free Index Collection. But note—the free index doesn’t have nearly as many records as the full collection, so while you can search some, you’re going to get a more comprehensive tree with the free trial.
Starting a new tree: You can start a new tree by clicking “Trees” in the top menu navigation bar. It has you fill out as much information about yourself, your parents, and your grandparents that you know. You keep adding until you don’t know any more relatives—and from there, Ancestry takes over. If you skipped the free trial, you’ll get hit with a sign-up form any time you try to access a record that’s not part of the free collection.
Vetting records on Ancestry: Once you enter a relative’s name and start searching, you’ll be hit with a barrage of records that could be pertinent to your ancestor. You can pretty quickly eyeball the ones that don’t quite match up with your knowledge—but it is deceptively easy to accidentally start adding incorrect records to your tree, especially if you start accepting all “hints” and “potential matches” Ancestry throws your way.
You’re essentially uncovering a story as you go further back. Keep your eyes on dates, locations, and names—and try to read documents in order. If your entire family has been situated in Virginia, but suddenly it suggests you have a grandmother who lived in Montana, find a correlating census than can corroborate that’s actually your grandmother, or move on—you don’t need to accept every record to keep building your tree.
Accepting Ancestry hints: As you get into the 1700s and 1800s, your ability to quickly eyeball inaccuracies will diminish, as will your confidence that you’re accurately tracing your heritage. Ancestry hints appear as you connect more documents to your relatives and the system starts recognizing similarities to other users’ trees, but accept hints with caution—it’s easy to get click happy, which is how you end up eye-to-eye with your mother-in-law and learning that her grandmother was named Noni, not Geraldine.
Sharing your tree with others: When you build your family tree in Ancestry, you have the option to set it as a private or public tree. Private trees do not get shared with other people in the network, while public trees are searchable by other users, and those same people can copy information from your tree into their own. Any living person is set as “private” on every user’s tree, regardless of whether it’s public or private. And if you’ve got curious family members who want to see what you’ve found, you can share your entire tree with them, as well.
I recommend signing up for the free trial and holding yourself to cancelling it after two weeks (unless you decide to keep it). Personally, I caved and signed up for the free trial after making it as far as I physically could with the free collection—so about four generations back. Plus, you can take advantage of the free trial to build your tree and rest easy knowing that once your trial is over, your tree won’t be deleted.
How accurate is your family tree in Ancestry?
Accuracy depends on how thoroughly you vet your connections before adding them to your family tree. Since you have the ability to comb through billions of records, you’re at the mercy of whoever transcribed documents from hundreds of years ago—which means while I was searching, I’d often find people whose names were one or two letters off from the truth, like a “Georb” instead of “George.” The good news is that Ancestry is smart—it often connects the correct records even with small typos like that, but you have to be vigilant while searching and reading documents.
Additionally, since you can add family members from other users’ trees, you’re putting a lot of faith into the fact that other people have done their own homework as thoroughly as you’d like—essentially, you’re doing a group project and 100% trusting that your team members did as much work as you did without double checking. It could be fine, but it could also lead you to thinking your relatives were sheepherders in Australia.
How does an Ancestry family tree affect your AncestryDNA results?
Building a tree is not necessary for getting your AncestryDNA results, but it can greatly enhance the entire experience by unlocking specific connections and helping you further build out your family history. Plus, building a family tree on Ancestry is incredibly fun—and there’s quite a bit you can do without having to pay any money.
For me, I built out an entire tree with the free trial, then after delving so deeply into my family, wanted to see what results my DNA test would show. I actually ended up keeping my Ancestry membership, too—after I discovered a few secret relatives, I wanted to verify them. And I wanted to see if there were other connections in the Ancestry network I didn’t know about.
My brother and I both took DNA tests with Ancestry—my results came after I had developed a fully fleshed out tree, while my brother hasn’t touched his tree feature at all. When you receive your DNA results, you unlock three main blocks: DNA story (which shows your ethnicity), DNA matches (which shows who you’re related to on Ancestry), and ThruLines.
ThruLines is a detailed feature that’s only available to those who have built a family tree through several generations. It builds upon both your DNA matches and your tree, showing you exactly how you’re related to DNA matches and potentially introducing you to new ancestors. ThruLines is both a standalone feature and a widget available on each DNA match. For example, here’s what a DNA match looks like on my Ancestry account versus my brother’s:
ThruLines is a great feature for fact-checking your work—if you’re not sure whether you built your tree correctly, ThruLines can show you exactly who you’re related to in your tree. Plus, it can tell you who you’re related to that you haven’t gotten a chance to add yet, which is exactly the kind of exciting information I came to Ancestry for in the first place.
Should you build a family tree on Ancestry?
Ultimately, if you’re looking for a way to discover more about your past, building a family tree on Ancestry is the way to go, especially if you’ve taken (or are waiting for the results from) an AncestryDNA test. It’s not a quick process—be prepared to spend a good few weeks digging into your family—but it’s an incredibly rewarding one, especially if you’ve got living relatives who are equally as curious as you are.
You may not validate that tall tale your mother has been telling you since birth (not looking forward to telling all my friends that I’m not actually a Sutherland), but you could discover so much more—like you’re also related to the family who probably caused the Salem Witch Trials, or that incest runs rampant among your father’s side (that’s right—I found it more than once).
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